Facebook's chief operating officer talks to the prolific TV creator and showrunner about how to root out workplace bias and get more women comfortable with power.
Sheryl Sandberg has been chief operating officer of Facebook since 2008. She's the best-selling author of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead and the founder of the nonprofit Lean In. Her second book is Option B. Clearly, she's a very accomplished person.
So am I. Shondaland is my company. I run that mother. I am in charge. I am the leader. It's fantastic. It's also really hard. As it should be. I'm fortunate to work with an incredible team of people, but it's not easy for them, either. I expect a lot from them. They expect a lot from me in return. But mostly what they expect from me is my leadership. That leadership takes the form of my imagination. Puffs of creative clouds sprouting from my fingers onto my computer. Waves of an imaginary sword as I charge all five shows forward into the great beyond of who knows what.
People expect me to be, first and foremost, a storyteller. I lead by telling stories. People expect Sheryl to be, first and foremost, an executive. She can't puff some creative clouds. Not to diminish what I do — because why would I? — but Sheryl stands at the center of a massive global brand that connects and influences our lives daily in ways small and large, good and worrisome (ahem, Russia). No matter how you feel about social media, you can't deny the giant that is Facebook.
I lead by telling stories. Sheryl leads by leading. Her sword is not imaginary. It is digital.
What is most interesting about Sheryl's sword isn't that it is digital. It's that it is different. I want to know what a woman in a very different kind of leadership role has to say about the state of women working right now. I want to know what she thinks about the pervasive problem of sexual harassment and assault. I want to know what she thinks about achieving gender equity as the solution. I want to know, years after Lean In, where she thinks we are. I want to know what she thinks we can do to level the playing field that never ever seems level.
I'm curious. If Sheryl leads in a different way, can she make a way that is different for the next generation of leaders? Can I steal her digital sword and use it for other stuff?
What follows is our Nov. 27 Q&A — edited for length, clarity and, frankly, to cut down on my rambling.
For us, it started with Harvey Weinstein, and it spread like wildfire. Silicon Valley had its own thing. As the leader of a brand, what was your personal reaction? I felt a little bit sick to my stomach — and then I was surprised that it wasn't as obvious to me as it should have been.
SHERYL SANDBERG I feel like this isn't over, we're at the beginning stages — and so how I feel about this is going to depend on what happens next. This is a huge watershed moment. I'm not surprised at the stuff that's happening, but it was a relief to see it come forward. But I think what really matters is: What happens now? And what needs to happen now is that we make systemic change.
I believe part of the solution is that we need to stop thinking of it as a human resources issue and begin thinking of it as a culture issue. Most companies have men in the high-level positions. If there could be real female equity — and I feel that in Hollywood it may be a little easier to accomplish than in Silicon Valley — with an equal number of women on boards and in C-suites, it would change the work culture much faster than anything else.
That I really agree with. Women are 6 percent of the Fortune 500 CEO jobs, they are 20 percent of Congress. Women run 13 countries, out of almost 200. Absolutely. This is about power, and if women had more, the culture would change.
What would it take to get there?
Well. (Laughs.) I think it's going to take the breaking down of both the explicit and implicit barriers women face. Lean In was about the comfort of women with power and the comfort of women as leaders.
You called out the problem beautifully. Have we moved far enough ahead that we're ready to step into the solution?
The solutions have to be recognizing the bias women face and the bias minorities face. That's the thing we all have to do. We know that organizations that think their system is meritocratic and people who think they are meritocratic often have the worst results because they don't correct. We have to understand that we all have a bias against women in leadership, including women, and then we need to correct for that. Recognizing the problem is a solution.
Do you feel like you've seen progress?
I think if you took the bias training that most of our employees have and we put it online, it's pretty hard to write into the next review of a woman who works for you that she's too aggressive. It's pretty hard to write in the next review of a Latina woman that she's emotional, or a black woman that she's angry, right? Those are the biases. Those are the stereotypes, and calling them out is a way to correct. We've got to not pretend that we don't think women are more aggressive than men, even though gender-blind tells us they're not. We know that women and minorities are viewed as less competent, even when they are equally or more competent. That's why the Boston orchestra can audition people behind a screen and hire more women all of a sudden — some of whom, by the way, were already subbing for the orchestra. We know when you give out a résumé with a white or black name that a white-sounding name with an identical résumé is worth 50 percent more callbacks.
My favorite thing to do is rip the covers off a script when reading for writers to hire and make everybody read without names on the covers of the script. I can't tell you how many times my writers, women and men, will pick people of color and women much more often than they would with a cover on the script. We need to understand why.
But here's why: By ripping that cover off, you are acknowledging there's bias. The problem is, there are a whole lot of interactions where you're face-to-face and you can't rip off the cover. We need to know that we treat men and people who are white as if they're smarter than women and people of color because then we can overcorrect. We need to know that "angry," "emotional" and "aggressive" are labels applied to certain women. Once you know that, when you hear someone say "angry," when you hear someone say "emotional," when you hear someone say "aggressive," you or someone else can say, "Wait a second, no, no, no, no," and theoretically rip that cover off.
But I think, for too long, we weren't willing to acknowledge the biases. We would just say, "We're meritocratic, we're meritocratic," and you cannot correct what you don't see. You cannot correct what you don't see.
Whenever you can read a résumé without a name, read a script without a name, that's awesome. But then the next step is, the people are there and you can't not look at them. How do we correct for those biases? The way Lean In argues to do it, and I feel this strongly, is: You have to acknowledge them, you have to correct them. There's a reason women get promoted for what they've done and men for their potential. There's a reason women apply for jobs when they meet all the criteria and men when they meet only some. It's that same bias.
We got to this point in the discussion because I brought up the sexual assault and harassment reckoning happening right now in Hollywood. Sexual harassment is obviously pervasive in this town. But it's everywhere. How can we create a safer workplace?
Long term, having more diversity at the top will make all the difference. We need more women, we need more people of color, we need more LGBT, we need those diverse voices. Unfortunately, we can't wave a magic wand and make that happen immediately, so until then, we need clear policies that companies follow. A lot of this stuff along the way, the Charlie Roses and the others, people reported it and people said, "Let Charlie be Charlie." But people need to take that super seriously. You need very clear guidelines for when something is reported. You launch an investigation. Not every investigation pans out. A lot of these boil down to his word versus hers. You can't perfectly investigate, but you can certainly try. And you absolutely have to have a culture where nothing bad happens to the people who report. That should never be tolerated.
If you could put together a dream team of people who could really attack this issue, who would that dream team be?
My dream team is women in real positions of power in every industry. I don't want a dream team, I want women to be 50 percent of the CEO jobs and to be 50 percent of the directors and producers of shows. I want more of you. I don't think it's an accident that you are you and you made those characters. I think it's exactly what we think would happen, and that says to me: If half the directors and producers were women and a much larger percentage were women of color, we'd have a lot more shows that look like Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder.
Do you think your influence as a woman in business at Facebook, as it moves deeper into entertainment and storytelling, has that same ability to make that influence?
We are really dipping our toe into content — we're not like a studio, we're not producing. If we go into anything in a big way, we have a responsibility to make sure that we're finding diverse voices to tell diverse stories. I think stories really matter, really matter. In TV or movies, if there is a working man, whatever his struggle, it's external to being a working father. The struggle for a working mother is always that she is a working mother. Whereas 70 percent of mothers in our economy are working, and we're telling women constantly, "You can't do it all." We never say that to a man.
Do you have compassion for younger women entering the workplace now? Do you think it's easier or harder in some ways?
I have a lot of compassion. I went into the workforce in 1991, and I looked above me, and it was all men. I looked beside me, and I was entering the workforce with equal amounts of women, and I thought 25 years later it would be equal at the top — and it is not. I mean, there has been essentially no improvement in the entire time you and I have been in the workforce. None. We took down some but not all of the explicit barriers. Gloria Steinem told me that when she was looking for a job, she'd open up classifieds and it'd be jobs for women, jobs for men. We don't live in that world anymore, but in some ways the world we live in now is harder to break through because so much more of it is hidden.
What are three things you wish you could tell everyone, not just women, but everyone entering or in the workforce right now?
The first thing I would tell men and women is that biases are real, but you can correct them — on every level. For example, when women are getting interrupted, you can interrupt the interrupter, even if you are the junior manager. You can see the biases and correct them. Once you see them, you see them everywhere. You have the power to take those steps. The second thing I would tell everyone, especially men, is that it is in your interest to do so. Whether you are the CEO or an entry-level worker, being able to work with half the population — and if it includes minorities, it's more than half the population — you're going to outperform your peers. Point one is to correct the biases, and point two is your career will be better if you do. I think that's very compelling. If you're the one all the minorities and women want to work with, you're going to outperform. And the third thing is to lean in. Don't let anyone tell you you can't. You can. You're going to be told you can't over and over. They're wrong. You can and you should.
Tougher question: With Facebook and the subject of Russia meddling in the 2016 presidential election, what are you going to do next in terms of taking responsibility?
We take it really seriously. It never should have happened. We've made massive investments in security and review in both machine-learning and engineering — and people who do everything to protect the quality of information on Facebook. We take it really seriously.
Do you feel like you're squashing freedom of speech for advertisers that only want to advertise to certain groups of people?
Every tool and technology ever built has been used for bad and good. The goal is to minimize the bad and maximize the good. Should we allow ads that are targeted to women or certain races or certain groups of people? There are good reasons and there are bad reasons. Our goal is to allow the good and squash the bad. There shouldn't be discrimination or predatory pricing, those things should not happen, but when you have a show and a marketing budget, and it's a show that will appeal to more women, then allowing you to advertise to more women than men is terrific. And do you know who it is most important to? People with less power and resources. The people that targeting really matters for are the small businesses. We enable small businesses to compete with big businesses because we can give them very sophisticated tools. And small businesses are often run by women. It's harder in the corporate structure for women. For me, any tool that democratizes access is super important to protect. You could check every post that goes on Facebook, but then no one would be able to post on Facebook.
You're the only woman on a senior team of five people. How do you square the fact that you are a champion of women, but you don't make equity a priority at your own company?
I'm not the only woman on a team of five. On our management team, there are several women in senior roles. Our head of HR, our head of global sales are women, but we certainly don't have the representation I want for women. Women represent about 35 percent of all of Facebook. On our nontech side, women represent 55 percent. On our tech side, women represent 19 percent. We've achieved great numbers on the business side but haven't on the tech side. In order to do that, we have to increase the number of women going into computer science. Women are 18 percent of computer science students in this country. So we're at 19 percent in tech at Facebook. Both of those numbers are way too low. We've got to get 50 percent of women to study computer science to get 50 percent at the company. And the fact that female minorities do not go into technical jobs in the same numbers is a huge problem. These are jobs that are highly paid, and tech roles are very flexible. So increasing the percentages of female minorities that are going into technical jobs is hugely important. Women were 35 percent of computer science majors in 1985, and they're 18 percent today.
On the C-suite level and the board level, is it your goal to get them there, too?
Everywhere, especially at my own company. Absolutely!
Standing inside of it, I know the challenges for me at my company. Standing inside of Facebook, what are the challenges? Are they larger than you? Is it about getting leadership, mentorship, training?
The biggest challenge for us in our industry is definitely computer science majors. If you change that, you change the industry, and it is very hard to change the industry. It's not an excuse. I'm not saying it's not on us to change that — it is — but a lot of jobs in tech are technical. Women go into CS at lower numbers. My worst story is, years ago, when talking to a young computer science intern, I said, "Where are all the girls?" He looked at me and said, "There are more 'Daves' than girls in my department." He meant there are more men named Dave than girls in his school. And there are great programs out there like Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code to change this.
What are you proud of in terms of what you've accomplished?
The first thing that comes to mind is the Lean In circles. We have 34,000 Lean In circles in more than 150 countries. Those circles make up one of the largest grassroots organizations of women anywhere. They're self-organizing. I visit them everywhere I go, and it is always the best moments. They are getting raises. They are getting promotions. They are changing jobs. They are practicing negotiating with each other and going into the world and claiming what's theirs. When the bad moments come, when you have the Harvey Weinstein moment, when I look up and hear of no movement for women, I think about the circles and the women who are coming up in those circles and what they do every day to support each other.
SHERYL SANDBERG'S SPHERES OF INFLUENCE
The Facebook COO, 48, is a sought-after member for corporations and nonprofits and has used her platform to help thousands of women move up — by Natalie Jarvey
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg tapped Sandberg as COO in 2008, four years before the social network's IPO, to help it focus on profitability and growing its advertising business. Under her guidance, Facebook has ballooned to 23,000 employees and 2 billion users. She was the first woman to join her company's board (which also now includes the Gates Foundation's Susan Desmond-Hellmann).
Two years after she joined Facebook, Sandberg was appointed to the board of directors at The Walt Disney Co. The former Google vp and U.S. Treasury Department chief of staff also spent three years as a board director at Starbucks and currently serves on the board of SurveyMonkey, where her late husband was CEO. Her nonprofit ties include Women for Women International and V-Day.
Sandberg's best-selling 2013 book on leadership spawned a nonprofit, LeanIn.org, which has grown its community to more than 380,000 people and launched such campaigns as Ban Bossy, featuring such assertive women as Jennifer Garner, Diane von Furstenberg and Beyonce, and #20PercentCounts, which got millions of views for its video on equal pay.
This story first appeared in the 2017 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.